Dawn shown through the sheer curtain windows of the unfamiliar room Wylie woke in. He stared at the ceiling while trying to put it all together. The last two days were a damn blur of crazy in his head. He finally took the initiation for the gang. Stopped Diego from killing some rich stranger. Saved the old guy’s life while finding out he was a dragon shifter and could heal wounds with his spit. Nearly ended up in Daiker prison, which would have been total death with all those huge psycho shifters. And now he was at the Academy, in the hospital after he ate handfuls of raw deer and looked like a weak-ass idiot in front of his new peers.

Yeah, it still wasn’t making a lot of sense.

Last night after Michael dropped him on the hospital bed, Wylie fell asleep immediately. He vaguely remembered being poked and prodded, mostly his aching skull before drifting off. He wasn’t sure why he was even awake now. He was tired and feeling cranky. Likely it was the sun blaring at him. His sensitive skin twitched from the sensation. It could also be the young man looking down from the foot of the bed whose dark eyes observed him from behind stylish rectangular glasses.

“I’m glad to see you’re awake, Mr. Doe.” The man’s voice was steady, soothing, and one Wylie immediately trusted. “I’m Dr. Robert Toras, but everyone just calls me Dr. Rob. I can’t help but notice you’re having difficulty with the sunlight. Would you like me to adjust the blinds?”

Wylie nodded and licked his chapped lips while looking around. There was a lot of white. Two lines of beds that could fit a football team took up each long wall, each decked out with a pillow and blanket at the ready. He wasn’t sure how many were housed at the Academy but he was getting a suspicion it was more than he’d first assumed.

“How do you feel?”

“Dry.” Wylie’s skin was tight and eyes bleary.

“Yes, that’s a normal side effect of the nullifier. Sucks the energy right out of you including the moisture. I’m going to administer an IV. Any allergies or phobias I should know of?”

Wylie focused on his kind face while Dr. Rob waited calmly for him to respond. Dr. Rob was handsome in a big brother sort of way, average height and build, with soulful black eyes and a soothing smile. He wasn’t drop dead gorgeous like Theodore or a Greek god like Michael, but he reminded Wylie of his mother when she still loved him, and that somehow seemed to be more impressive than all the crazy beauty he’d seen so far.

“No phobias.” Wylie’s voice was hoarse and cracked. Dr. Rob handed him a ready paper cup of water. “No allergies. Um, a lot of medicines don’t actually work on me. Something about my body processing them too quick.”

“You’re a shifter; that’s to be expected. I’m more than equipped to counter that. Any history of illness, serious injuries, genetic deficiencies?”

There really wasn’t much to contribute since Wylie didn’t have a family. Dr. Rob asked him a few more questions. A lot of them concerned his arms and how he transformed. Wylie was pretty sure he was trying to figure out if they were broken and he really didn’t know the answer. They didn’t hurt or bleed, and he couldn’t transform past his shoulders.

“Don’t worry if you don’t know all the answers. We’re going to have plenty of time to figure out what makes you tick, Wylie.” Dr. Rob straightened on the stool he was sitting on and twirled a pen between his fingers idly. “I run the Magical Healing Arts program here, as well as teach an array of small courses on emergency first aid, health, and fitness. I also co-host a monthly course with Bear on wilderness survival. It’s very important that shifters exercise, not only because it’s great for the body, but it helps keep the more animalistic urges in line. For a type 2 shifter, we have a few obstacle courses set up on the grounds to focus your energy. Type 2’s don’t usually hunt the way the type 1 shifters do to burn off steam, although it’s not unheard of if you choose to.”

Wylie wiggled his way up the bed until he was sitting propped on a pillow. “What makes me a ‘type 2’ shifter? I thought besides the animal form, shifters were all the same.”

“That is a very common bit of misinformation, actually.” Dr. Rob stood and set up a saline drip as he talked. “Type 1’s are the most common shifter, where a male who possesses the shifter gene transforms into his inner animal. Type 2 shifters, which dragon shifters fall into, are rarer. Even with a full transformation, you’ll never truly resemble a dragon, just a humanoid with dragon characteristics.”

“But I thought…?” Wylie trailed off. The only time he’d even heard of humanoid type creatures like that, it was always the cursed variety. Werewolves, specifically. But they only transformed once a month and he could change at will.

“We actually have another type 2 teaching at the Academy. He doesn’t like to disclose it, but I’m sure Theodore would be willing to share some of his experiences with you about it.” Dr. Rob skillfully stuck a needle into Wylie’s arm. It didn’t hurt but pain was a rare thing for him, even in human form.

“So, Theodore’s like me?” Wylie wasn’t fully surprised once the words were out. The instructor was familiar in a lot of ways. Annoying as fuck, but familiar.

“He’s a dragon shifter, yes. It’s actually remarkable to have two in the same building.” Dr. Rob smiled crookedly. “He can be a little territorial so if he gives you any trouble, it’s probably that.”

Wow, okay, very familiar. Suddenly he wanted to find Theodore and ask him a million questions, the main one being why hadn’t he told him.

“How about you close your eyes and let that IV do its thing? I’ll get you some breakfast.”

Wylie nodded and sank back into his pillow. Dr. Rob patted him on the shoulder before he left and he fought the urge to hug the man. Dr. Rob might be more like Theodore and Michael after all; he had some sort of innate charisma that drew people in and made them trust. Even so, Wylie was pretty certain Dr. Rob was someone worth trusting.

Actually, there seemed to be more than a few people who gave a fuck at the Academy and he had no idea how he felt about it.

Wylie half expected prison food when Dr. Rob brought him a tray. Hospital food probably would have been a better guess, but it wasn’t that either. He didn’t know who cooked for the Academy but he had a feeling they did a lot of it from scratch. The smells were delicious, the flavor even better. He stared at the hearty spread of meats and vegetables that replaced his usual cavity-inducing breakfast of sugary cereal. He wondered if he asked for raw meat if the Academy would provide it. Not that he wanted raw meat… Much.

Not too much.

God, he was fucked-up.

He could feel the dragon inside him. Last night had done something to the creature and it was awake, alert and was looking around. Wylie wasn’t sure how he went so long with his dragon disconnected from him, but feeding it had anchored the being in his body and it didn’t seem in a hurry to go back to sleep.

It was absolutely bizarre. It was disconcerting to feel a living, conscious soul inside of him so different from his own. But also, it was familiar. Maybe even a little comforting. He wasn’t alone. All the shit he went through growing up, all the times he struggled in silence; he was never alone. The dragon inside helped fuel him and keep him going. Now he finally had a name for the beast.

Wylie ate swiftly, his head ducked, shoulders hunched forward in a stance learned when fearing a desperate hand might try to take his food. He forced himself to slow and peered up at the rows of empty beds. The patients he saw last night weren’t scrawny and large-eyed, underfed and undernourished like kids in the many foster homes he’d been to. They weren’t even defensive with chips on their shoulders bigger than they were. They had seemed—well, beyond the eating of the deer—really normal.

Not quite like the students he chose to avoid at his new school, where he met Beck. The students were so blithe about anything bad in the world, completely unaware life existed different from their own. They were full of the superficial happiness born from an ignorance of pain that made Wylie’s jaw clench and his heart twist in bitter jealousy. The shifters didn’t seem like that either, nor had any of the adults he met so far.

He pushed his empty tray aside, untangled from the hospital sheets and stood. He only swayed a little. The incident with the nullifier was a dull ache to his forehead now. He was still dressed in his clothes from the burglary and the dry blood made his jeans stiff as he explored the long hospital room.

He hadn’t expected magic and technology to go side by side, but the room was full of it. They had electronic monitors for vitals along with potions and salves he felt radiate with magic. Most were locked up in the large glass cabinet that took up a whole wall of the room. His eyes fell on a stack of metallic loops, thick and collar sized. They were kept away from everything else, no lock on the glass door that housed them. Either they weren’t expensive or they were too important to waste time to unlock.

He wandered to the shaded window and peeked out with squinted eyes. He hated how sensitive his eyes were to sunlight, the effect more pronounced since his dragon stirred. The grounds were beautiful during the day. Expansive fields of gold grass were dusted with frost, and gray woods in the distance bordered it all. He knew somewhere on the other side of those woods was the gate that locked him in this strange place. There was no city, no noise of cars or smell of exhaust. There was no one kicking him outside until dark for fear he’d steal if left alone in a group home. It was all so foreign and unfamiliar.

For the first time, Wylie felt completely disconnected from the world he’d always known and he didn’t know who he was outside of it.

He knew what he did. He knew why he did the many things he did. Like hunch over his food to keep others from stealing it, or tell people to fuck off in case they thought they could intimidate him and make his life crap. He knew why he let a naïve guy like Beck spend time with him. Even if Beck was one of those superficial kids just looking to piss his parents off, he was the closest thing to normal Wylie was ever going to be able to stomach.

Even Beck was far from perfect. He belittled Wylie’s dream of college like he was just some idiot with super strong, fucked-up arms. It was selfish. Beck wanted him to never leave while Wylie knew they were never going to be long term. He didn’t do long term, not in his situation. Still, it hurt.

He spent a lifetime reacting to a world he came to understand. It wasn’t a nice world. Certainly it wasn’t a loving one. If people weren’t hateful when they found out he was a shifter, they were indifferent. Now he was in a place where people asked how he felt and sounded like they meant it. Michael bothered to look him in the eye. Theodore, who Wylie was certain hadn’t even liked him in the beginning, became begrudgingly protective in the short time they’d known each other.

No, he didn’t have a fucking clue what the hell he was supposed to do in a place like this.

Part of him hoped it was a lie. Maybe Collin McPherson was some sort of crime boss or something. Maybe he was some rich psycho who scooped up violent, vicious shifters and turned them into his own personal army. Except, there was nothing remotely vicious about the guys he met last night. Damn.

Five years of this place. He didn’t want to fuck things up with these people. He liked Theodore, even if the man was a grumpy bastard. Michael was weird and was willing to take a swing at a cop for him. Mrs. Winchester acted like this place was damn near heaven, and even though the social worker wore her heart on her sleeve, Wylie trusted her opinion. It was the first time anyone made a stand for him—and it was right after his biggest fuck-up. He robbed a guy’s house to get into a gang.

Wylie turned from the window and stared at the door that led out to the hallway and the rest of the Academy. Things could be different if he gave it a shot. He could be different. He had a dragon inside him and was surrounded by people that understood what that meant.

Five years.

In five years, he could be a person he actually liked. If he didn’t fuck it up.

Michael showed up to collect Wylie later in the day when his headache had gone and his strength returned. He had a pair of sunglasses in hand and offered them with a rueful grin. “Sorry about that, Doe. I was supposed to drop these off this morning but the guys were acting up. I don’t think any of them slept last night.”

Wylie slipped the shades on with a sigh and the world became bearable just like that. “How’s that McPherson guy? Do you think I’ll get a chance to see him?”

“I do believe there’s a good possibility of that, given he’s usually at the Academy three days a week.”

“Ah… So the others probably all know him, huh?” Wylie shoved his hands in his pockets. He really needed to shower and change. He was still covered in the old guy’s blood.

“Everyone here knows and likes Collin,” Michael said with a meaningful look. “And we don’t discuss what brought a person to the Academy. It’s completely up to you if you want to disclose that information.”

That was a no, he was pretty fucking sure. To have it known he broke into the owner’s place wouldn’t win him any favors, even though he saved the guy’s life after. “So what’s next?” He followed Michael out into the corridor.

“We get you a proper bed. It’s two to a room and we have a few openings currently. I was thinking of putting you in with Fox. You met him last night. He has ADD up the walls, but he’s a good guy and I think he’ll understand where you’re coming from.”

He was pretty sure Michael wanted to say the ghetto. He smartly kept his mouth shut. Rightly so because when Michael did follow up, Wylie felt like a total ass.

“He’s a shifter. Fox has the ability to be aggressive, but he controls it even though he struggles. I think you can learn a lot from him and maybe he can pick up a bit from you about how to be assertive while walking the line.”

Yeah, he felt like an asshole. “Is that something you want your patients to be? Assertive?” It sounded like a fight waiting to happen.

“Shifters have this weird pecking order because of all their animal instincts.” Michael led them down another hall. Wylie was starting to realize the place was huge, a maze of corridors that all looked alike except for the paintings on the walls.

“You have guys like Leo, alphas who want to rule everything. They can’t help it. The voice in their head tells them it’s the only safe, right way to be to keep everyone else safe and right. Then you have guys like Forest and Fox. They’re not submissive types; they’re independent freelancers who adapted to a pack setting once at the Academy. Leo wants them to be submissive, though, to the point he makes their lives hell because he can’t stop that voice in his head. The guys get quiet after a while because they just don’t want to make waves. It’s not great. Not for them and not for Leo, who fails to learn that a communal pack can be strong.”

“What, so you think I’m different?” Wylie scoffed. “I’m not going to challenge some angry alpha for the right to tell his whipped friends what to do. I have to be here for five years and I doubt fighting is allowed.”

Michael stopped walking, turned and fixed him with a serious look. “As long as you’re within the compound’s boundaries—everything inside the big gate and fence—you can do anything you want, Wylie. We would prefer you did not try to kill anyone, but accidents happen. You’re a shifter, a very powerful one. Part of controlling that power is learning how to get along with your inner dragon and, believe me, that beast is going to have an issue with Leo no matter how resolved you are to keep your head down.”

Wylie was getting a feel for the Academy, and he still wasn’t sure if he liked it. To have an authority figure just outright tell him he could beat the fuck out of anyone who gave him the stink eye was damn dangerous. He could feel the dragon inside perking up at the thought.

He met Michael’s gaze directly. “You want me to let that thing loose? Do you even understand how crazy it is?” Michael wasn’t a shifter so Wylie didn’t know if he really understood them. But the look he was giving suggested Wylie was the one being unreasonable.

“The more you try to chain your beast, the more it’s going to act up. You need to look at it as another entity inside you who needs to be fed, exercised, and given affection. Otherwise, it’s going to get twisted and bitter, and you’re going to have serious issues. Like Leo. He’s been fighting a fully grown male lion all his life and he’s only just now started to relax his hold. If he doesn’t get the proper negative response to his lion’s aggressive, territorial actions, Leo’s lion is never going to understand boundaries. We work as a team here and you have just joined a pack of shifters whether you realize it or not.”

Wylie blinked when he felt his dragon respond to the news. It was uncomfortable after he spent a lifetime ignoring the beast inside. But he fed it last night, and talked to shifters, and finally named it for what it was. Everything was different and he was really confused by it all. “I’ve never been in a pack. Never even saw one.”

With a wry smile, Michael started walking again. “It’s probably going to be a lot like that gang you were trying to get into. But, you know, much more hunting, howling, and smelling trees.”

Wylie wasn’t sure if he was joking. He didn’t smell trees. He was pretty sure that was a dog thing.

“I want to warn you about Justin.”

“What, the sweet guy?”

Michael glanced back with an unreadable expression. “The werewolf. He’s part of your pack but he’s very different. Type 3 shifters are unpredictable. He’ll only transform fully on the full moon and he has to be sequestered at that time as a class-1 alert. The whole compound goes into lockdown for him. The cursed are contagious only on that one night, and we do everything to keep the others safe.

“That said, Justin goes through mood swings. He can get mean when his wolf is talking in his ear, and it’s a really mean, crazy wolf. Just remember he’s still a sweet guy when he’s suddenly trying to tear your throat out with his little bitty fangs, okay? He gets really depressed after an incident. How people bounce back helps him bounce back.”

Wylie scratched the back of his head and nodded after a moment. “Hey, it’s cool. I’ve seen a lot of fucked-up kids in my days of foster care. Just because he can turn into a wolf doesn’t make him more different than the rest.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Michael smacked him on the back. “The cursed get a lot of flak. People are scared of being turned and all. The guy is sweet. Loves music. A total puppy.”

They turned a corner and Wylie stopped short. He almost slammed into someone before he got his feet to stop. He instinctively grabbed for the guy’s shoulders to keep from knocking him to the ground. “Shit, sorry there…” he trailed off. His breath hitched as he took in the startled young man. Holy fuck.

Burning hazel eyes met his. His chocolate hair was all stylish and sexy. His skin was a crystal clear olive and lips… He had pouty red lips Wylie immediately wanted to devour. It wasn’t just him; his dragon was fucking awake and hissing in his ear. Wylie might have actually been hissing as well. He quickly took a step back so he was at arm’s length.

“Sorry,” he said again because you really couldn’t say anything else after hissing at someone. The gorgeous guy just stared at him, cool as could be, and carefully pried Wylie’s fingers off his shoulders. Because he was apparently still holding him. “Sorry.”

“Chill. It happens.” He looked at Michael and Wylie could breathe again. Fuck. Holy fuck.

“Master Whiteheart, I was hoping you’d take my collar off. I want to practice some spells before the practical tomorrow.”

“Sure, Dorian.” Michael gave Wylie a look he really didn’t notice because he was staring at the young sorcerer and trying to figure out what he looked like without clothes. His guess was good. Really fucking good. Dorian was half a head shorter than him, slender, and compact with a sexy kind of lithe he wanted to run his hands all over. Maybe his tongue; he could totally lick every fucking inch of the guy. He smelled amazing; a mix of light, male sweat and cool, expensive cologne. Very tasteful. Damn near preppy, actually.

Wylie took in Dorian’s fitted, fashionable clothes. Add his pretty face and quiet, aloof attitude, and he might be dealing with a snob. A sexy as fuck snob who should be an underwear model and he really needed to stop staring at him.

Dorian’s collar came off and Wylie’s dragon lost it.

“Wylie?” Michael was at his elbow in an instant. He blocked his view. His piercing blue eyes tore into Wylie’s when his sunglasses went flying. But Wylie couldn’t see him. His dragon was clamoring for the white-hot energy it felt only five feet away and it didn’t need to see Dorian to sense him.

“I need to not be here right now,” Wylie gritted out as scales peppered up his arms. “Shit! Get off me!” He jumped back. Michael just avoided being shredded by his demon arms when they made a full, black-scaled, wicked-clawed arrival against his will. Fuck.

“You need to talk to me, Wylie.” Michael held his hands out to show they were empty like they were fighting or some shit. “What’s it saying to you? What’s triggering the dragon?”

Saying? It wasn’t saying fuck. The damn thing was trying to throw itself across the fucking room at that damn delicious energy Dorian was giving off. Wylie thought his dragon wanted blood but whatever the fuck Dorian was, it would be happy to eat it.

Great. He was a fucking cannibal. Fuck his motherfucking life.

He was unable to voice any of his crazy thoughts. Instead Wylie crouched on the floor with his arms over his head while he hissed like some weird lizard and did his best not to touch anything.

“Do you…? I can leash him,” Dorian said softly. His buffed bright leather boots came into view. He really needed to get the fuck out of there and apparently Wylie’s hisses weren’t communicating the obvious to him. “I do it for Leo all the time.”

“Leo’s not a dragon, Dorian.” It was Theodore. Wylie felt him more than saw as he strode down the hall. He’d never been more relieved in his entire life. “Wylie, is it blood?”

“No.” He peeked through his claws to find Red looking like a king and possibly about to go dragon just in case he lost his shit. Yeah, Theodore was his best fucking friend after this.


Wylie nodded and a groan escaped him. “White-hot… Burning white… Can’t…” His gaze drifted against his best efforts and his view was consumed by Dorian, who was staring down at him in confusion. He was fucking gorgeous and now glowing in damn near angelic light. Wylie’s dragon lurched toward him with another loud hiss and everyone took a step back. “God, it’s good… I can’t, can’t control it…”

He wasn’t sure exactly what happened. One second Dorian was angelic and the next he sparked fire over his skin. At first, he thought he was seeing things, but then Michael swore and patted down his smoking shirt.

Theodore looked from Wylie to Dorian. He grabbed the metal band Dorian was holding and wrapped it tight around his neck. The fire went out, the white-hot burning pillar of power dispersed, and Wylie’s dragon eventually sat its ass down.

Wylie collapsed on the tile floor. He panted loudly while he tried to comprehend what the fuck just happened. He wasn’t the only one; Dorian hit the ground hard and groaned as he glared at his charred clothes. Yeah, he’d be hot without clothes on.

“This isn’t going to work,” Wylie said to Theodore when he stood over him. “I just got here and I’ve broken down twice. What the fuck am I going to do if someone starts bleeding?”

Theodore raised his eyebrow and his lips twitched in a grim smirk. “You’re going to heal them, you dumbass punk.”

Shit, he hated him. Wylie ended up snickering even though he didn’t want to.

“Would someone kindly explain?” Michael muttered as he spelled his clothes back into perfection with a few waves of his hand.

That shut Wylie up and he glanced anxiously at Theodore. “I’ll deal with it, Michael,” Theodore said simply. “I think you better see to your sorcerer. That’s the first time he’s gone up in flames.”

“Not the first,” Dorian snapped icily. “Just the first time here. The first time in three fucking years.” He glared at Wylie, who swallowed hard in response. The guy was really hot, especially when angry. Dorian also totally seemed to hate him. And had not gotten burned by his own fire. He was really hot.

Michael hauled sexy to his feet and Wylie watched him walk away. Dorian had a nice ass too. Really nice.

“Are you going to put your arms away anytime soon?” Theodore broke Wylie from his very distracted thoughts.

He pushed off the floor and pulled his scales in. It got him thinking about how through all of it, the only one who gave off even a hint of fear sweat was Michael, and that was when he sprouted scales inches from his face. “He wasn’t afraid of me.”

“Who, Dorian?” Theodore snorted softly. “That kid’s the most dangerous thing here and he’s well aware of it.”

Wylie stumbled as he got to his feet. “He’s human. Can’t be that dangerous…” he trailed off at Theodore’s expression. “Right. That pillar of power. God… Does your dragon—Am I a cannibal? I think my dragon wants to eat him.”

Theodore inhaled sharply and pointed down the corridor. “Not another word. That is not a rumor you want to start in a place like this.”

Wylie bit his lip and followed him in silence.

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